Healthy Interdependence

Couple walking down the street holding hands, demonstrating healthy interdependence

Some people think depending on others is weak and being independent is what makes you strong. Others conclude that fierce independence is actually a cowardly fear of vulnerability and that being willing to rely on others is true strength. As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.

On one side of the spectrum, there is a desire to meet all your needs by yourself — to have total control of the supply chain, so to speak. Not wanting to need anything from anyone is an understandable adaptation to shame and low self-esteem (not wanting to be a burden) or to being repeatedly neglected, ignored, or dismissed. It’s also a common reaction to abusive and unreliable caregiving.

For many people, it literally wasn’t safe to have needs, ask for help, or trust their loved ones growing up. This became wired into their nervous systems as a template for human connection (avoidant attachment).

On the other end of the trauma response continuum, there are those who felt abandoned, physically or emotionally, who suffered intermittent parental misattunement as kids, and who are still waiting for others to meet their needs the way children naturally expect their parents to. So, instead of being under-dependent, these people become overly dependent on others (anxious attachment).

What separates these camps is that the first group deeply experienced the danger or futility of their childhood dependencies and concluded that self-reliance was their best bet; the other group received enough false hope, mixed messages, and ambiguity to keep them in a childlike state of expectation. Yet, their attachment needs were not satisfied to the extent it’s necessary for emotional maturation to occur.

One is a coping mechanism, and the other, a developmental arrest.

What Happens When People Disappoint You?

Recently, I was counting on my wife to help me with a weekend class I was teaching on Anxious + Avoidant relationship dynamics (sweet irony). The day before my class, overwhelmed with her own work and trying to hit a deadline, she told me she couldn’t do the thing I had been absolutely relying on for the success of my event.

I was so mad I could’ve set myself on fire.

Rather than trying to negotiate, as I imagine many people would in my shoes, my immediate response was a most emphatic, This is why we don’t ask for help, borrow things, trust people, or rely on anyone. It’s why you gotta carry it all and don’t expect anything from anybody!

I must’ve been ten years old when I bought this Jim Morrison poster (with my own money) to hang in my bedroom. When my pops told me he could get it framed for me, I excitedly handed it to him. I didn’t care about the frame, but the idea of my father doing something special for me had me over the moon.

Never saw that shit again until months later when he gave it to my older brother for Christmas. Framed. The brother who used to beat me up, pick on me, burn me, literally piss on me. The brother no one could ever protect me from. I’ll never forget the joy on his face when he opened his Christmas present that year.

I couldn’t possibly list all the deeply disappointing moments of my childhood. In fact, I’m pretty sure my brain has cordoned off a lot of those memories with yellow tape to keep me from going there anymore. But one of the key takeaways from my relationships with my pop and my brothers is that people are fucking trash. Reliably unreliable.

Putting Out The Fire

Now, you may know that I’ve been doing therapy and recovery work for my entire adult life, so I’ve got a few tools for dealing with challenging experiences these days. But I also hope you realize that “healed” doesn’t necessarily look like being an unshakeable paragon of strength and integrity all the time.

Returning to the situation with my wife, I was so upset I could hardly function the night before my class. I had a list of things I was planning to do, but I knew the emotional shit storm raging in my chest would make that impossible.

I told her I was angry. Actually, I’m pretty sure I said I was feeling “extremely fucked” (decidedly not within the lexicon of nonviolent communication), and that I would be going out to dinner by myself. I said I needed some space to process and problem-solve and that talking to her would be supremely unhelpful for the time being.

After changing my environment and getting some air, space, and delicious food, I reached out to some friends, got help, and was reassured that everything would work out just fine. I still knew in my guts I would have to get to the other side of my class before I could deal with the emotional fallout in my marriage from a position of neutrality.

The class was Saturday, and I put in long hours. Everything went as smoothly as possible, and after I buttoned it all up, the feelings of anger, disappointment, betrayal, and abandonment were gone. I went upstairs and took my wife’s hand, looked her in the eyes, and told her I was done being angry. We hugged it out, and I suggested we do a post-mortem on that thing during our regularly scheduled Sunday morning check-in.

Moving Back Towards The Center

The next day we went for a morning stroll as we typically do on Sundays when we talk about feelings and stuff. I shared that my childhood wound was trying to convince me that it’s better to not need anything from anyone, ever. That my immediate impulse was to purchase an expensive piece of equipment that would replace my need to ask for her help again.

But I know now that in between needing her for everything and never needing her for anything at all is a place of healthy interdependence that can never be discovered through the lens of all-or-nothing thinking. This interdependence requires strong, explicit communication about wants, needs, and expectations on the front end and a modicum of flexibility and acceptance when things don’t go as planned.

I explained to my wife that never asking her for help again was certainly “a” solution to my emotional pain, but a solution that would drop a steamy elephant turd right on our marriage. I know too much to believe that healthy and satisfying intimacy can exist with cool, calculated independence from her. But I also acknowledged my desire for certainty and trust within that bond.

My proposal was that, moving forward, I would ask how confident she was that she could show up for me for a particular thing. And depending on her confidence as well as the importance of the situation, I would either rely on her completely, keep a plan B on deck just in casies, or make plan B my plan A.

Rebecca shared what was going on for her at the time, how she interpreted my reaction to her, and we had a good look at both sides of the story. We’ve gotten pretty good at knowing that each of our experiences is completely valid and that blame and shame are not helpful tools in our relationship. So we usually don’t spend much time playing “Find the bad guy.”

It was a good, long talk, and we discovered more intimacy, connection, safety, and understanding on the other side, as is usually the case with most of our uncomfortable conversations.

The 4 Basic Attachment Behaviors

When Mary Ainsworth designed her famed “Strange Situation” experiment to further the work of John Bowlby’s Attachment Theory, she had the following attachment behaviors in mind:

  1. We monitor and maintain physical and emotional closeness with our attachment figure.
  2. We reach out for this person when we are unsure, upset, or feeling down.
  3. We count on this person to be there for us when we go out into the world and explore.
  4. We miss this person when we are apart.

Although this experiment studied attachment in infants between 12 and 18 months, you may begin to wonder whether these behaviors are indicative of universal, lifelong human needs. Do they not describe an ideal adult love relationship?

What happens to a romantic partnership when some or all of these behaviors are missing? When they don’t feel safe? Well, it’s certainly possible to have a partnership of sorts, but is it romantic? Is it connected? Can true intimacy even exist in the absence of such desires?

In her book Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson explains that love relationships have nothing to do with the exchange of things and stuff. They’re emotional bonds driven by our innate need to have someone to depend on who can offer safe, reliable, human connection and comfort. Couples often argue about sex, money, parenting, or whatever, but the argument is almost never about those things.

It’s usually about being able to depend on each other to get our basic attachment needs met.

Healthy Interdependence

Finally arriving at the whole point of this article, a secure relationship cannot exist in the face of either over-dependence or under-dependence.

If I need everything from my partner, I will inevitably encroach on many of their fundamental human needs, and no one can shoulder that weight indefinitely. Thus begins the dysfunctional cycle of demand and withdrawal commonly seen in Anxious + Avoidant relationships.

And if I don’t allow myself to need anything from my partner, they’ll become unnecessary, disposable. Having already decided that I can’t rely on them to meet my deepest emotional needs (the whole point of the relationship to begin with), I’ll find myself in a constant state of ambivalence and doubt. Do I even wanna be in this relationship? What is my partner even doing for me?

Do you see? You have to depend on each other for the relationships to work. But these dependencies must be clear, healthy, boundaried, and appropriate. John Bowlby originally used the term “healthy dependence” to describe it, but I prefer the word interdependence to highlight the reciprocal nature of the arrangement.

In their book Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller write, “If you want to take the road to independence and happiness, find the right person to depend on and travel down it with that person.” This seemingly paradoxical statement succinctly illustrates the nature of interdependence.

Examples and Non-Examples of Interdependence

If one partner pays for literally everything and handles all the adult responsibilities, this is more of a parent-child dynamic (or a hostage situation) than a healthy relationship. One partner is utterly dependent, while the other could easily support themselves. This power differential can be quite dangerous, actually.

Maybe if one person makes more money, you can split the bills 60/40. My wife and I have been on both sides of this arrangement as our incomes have fluctuated. Or perhaps one partner carries the finances while the other is in between jobs or raising an infant. These are completely acceptable examples of interdependence.

Not having a friend, family member, or therapist to connect with about important issues is just as dangerous as only connecting with these people and leaving your partner in the dark.

My wife and I talk to each other regularly about feelings, needs, fears, etc. But also, sometimes the likelihood of me saying some truly awful shit to her is high, and I need to phone a friend to talk me off that ledge. The key here is to reconnect with her after the dust settles, not to replace my connection with her with a friend or therapist.

Sometimes one person has no hobbies, passions, desires, or ambitions of their own and uses their partner as a surrogate self. Or they rely completely on their significant other to inject all the excitement into a relationship.

Wherever you find extreme levels of dependency, you will find strained relationships. It’s on us to always move closer to the center.

The Trickiest Part

Healthy interdependence doesn’t often just accidentally happen. It requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness, vulnerability, and skillful communication.

I used to not share my needs, then conclude that my partner was incapable of meeting these (entirely uncommunicated) needs, and unilaterally decide that, once again, I was dating the wrong person! It’s embarrassing to admit, but I’m pretty sure large swaths of the population do it as well, so I’m not alone.

The following are some helpful guidelines for not burning your relationship to the ground and blaming your partner for it.

Creating Interdependence

In order to create successful interdependence (because it’s not something you’re likely to clumsily stumble upon), you gotta get real clear about what you want, need, and expect from your partner. Then it’s wise to assess those desires to see how many of them are appropriate and which ones are based on a childhood wound, immature fantasy, or trauma response that absolutely isn’t your partner’s responsibility to deal with. Depending on how dysfunctional your upbringing was, this may require some outside assistance.

The next move is to communicate your reasonable needs to your partner in a non-demanding way. Creator of Nonviolent Communication Marshall Rosenberg says to ask your partner to meet your needs “like flowers for your table, not air for your lungs.” If you have an unhealthy dependence on your partner, their action or inaction may feel like a threat to your air supply. This essentially puts your reptilian brain in charge of your relationship (not ideal, btw).

If you tell your partner, “I need you to…” you’re making a demand that forces them to either submit or rebel — neither of which builds healthy interdependence. Most people are unwilling to accept no as a response to an “I need you to…” statement, which is exactly why it can be so incendiary. Furthermore, a real need does not require a specific person to take a specific action.

“I have a need for connection and belonging” is a true statement. We all have that need.

“I need you to make me feel like I belong” is complete horse shit. Don’t ever say that.

This is precisely the difference between having needs and being needy.

And finally, you must allow your partner to meet your healthy needs, which requires a level of vulnerability many folks would rather do without. But vulnerability is the very currency of intimacy. So if you feel ill-equipped for that emotional risk, I recommend getting your ass into therapy posthaste. Because your car will no sooner run without gasoline than your relationship will function without vulnerability.

We Got Work To Do

The main objective is to empower each other to be successful in meeting your basic attachment needs in a way that feels good for both of you. And this takes practice.

Oftentimes, it also involves recovery work around trauma, shame, codependency, and the like. You’ll need to be adept at identifying and communicating your feelings, needs, and boundaries. You’ll need tools for navigating conflict and difficult conversations.

But if your significant other knows exactly what you need in order to feel loved, supported, and connected, and they can meet your needs from a place of freedom and love (not obligation and resentment), you’ve got a solid chance of cultivating sustainable interdependence.

It’s like Rumi said damn near a millennium ago, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

People out here looking for a secure relationship like the prize at the bottom of the cereal box. Stop that.

The only secure relationship you will ever “find” is the one you create by the sweat of your own brow.

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Dang. That was like a whole ass therapy appointment. Should I be paying for this article?

Dang. That was like a whole ass therapy appointment. Should I be paying for this article?

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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

2 thoughts on “Healthy Interdependence

  1. “Sometimes one person has no hobbies…” That paragraph. That’s me. I’m mid-divorce and keenly missing my “surrogate self”. Never having been the driver, the family visionary, the trip planner, I am adrift and fighting the feeling that the best part of my life is over. I began a 12-step program (my second) in Oct and it’s helping but good gawd the work ahead. ODAT, I know. Thank you for this piece, Adam.

    1. It may absolutely feel that way. Which sucks. AND… feelings aren’t facts. And if I had to guess, I’d say your best years lie ahead. Since I got into recovery, I have gotten better consistently. Yeah, I’ve hit some major rough patches, for sure. But the trajectory has been that of steady improvement for 15 years. I also like to believe that my life is designed for my benefit, and that that burdens I bear were put here to make my life better (whether I feel that way, see it, understand it, believe it, or not). Wishing you godspeed on this new chapter of your life, Dana.

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